LAWRENCE — As officials expect to distribute thousands of space heaters Monday to Merrimack Valley residents still without gas service, and begin a momentous effort to repair 48 miles of underground gas pipeline, beleaguered residents said they fear the coming cold as autumn sets in.
With cool temperatures on Sunday, residents noted that winter isn’t so far away.
“I think that many single moms, and elderly people, and every kind of person panicked, because you go from, ‘it’s chilly’ to ‘winter’s here, we have no heat,’” said the Rev. Paul O’Brien of St. Patrick Catholic Church in South Lawrence. “People’s nerves are so on edge.”
The Sept. 13 disaster struck sections of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, with fires and explosions, killing one man, injuring dozens, and leaving thousands without gas heat and hot water.
State and local officials, along with the utility Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, have been working to make repairs and restore service ever since.
The disaster’s aftermath has worn on residents.
Kathleen Rosado, 30, lost two days of work as a housekeeper at a hospital due to the gas explosions, she said. Her family can’t use their washing machine, and they have been spending money eating out every day or relying on microwaved meals.
She is tired of cold showers, she said, but has no choice. Her apartment building, along with most of the other houses along Farnham Street, does not have gas, she said.
“I get home at midnight from work,” Rosado said in Spanish. “I’m not going to heat water at midnight.”
Officials on Friday outlined an aggressive campaign to replace pipeline under the affected municipalities by a deadline of Nov. 19, placing a construction company executive in charge of the recovery, and announced the distribution of thousands of hot plates and space heaters to affected residents.
Columbia Gas said in a statement that it “will compensate its customers for all losses reasonably related to this incident,” including bodily injury, property damage, disruption of business, inconvenience caused by the loss of gas service, and “reasonable” efforts to limit or mitigate loss.
Columbia will also reimburse customers for “reasonable costs” of permanently switching to an alternative fuel source, as well as temporarily switching to appliances or systems that use another fuel, the company said.
Linda Ouellet, 50, said she was encouraged that the company would cover the cost of using electric space heaters. The decision by Columbia Gas was “the least they can do,” she said.
“It was an error on their part that caused all this. They should take responsibility for it. How can they do otherwise?” Ouellet said.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, whose home is still without gas service, said he understands residents’ concerns, noting that “we are motivated equally, and frustrated equally, every day.”
“But the most important thing is that we have a little bit of patience and understand that this is unprecedented, that this has never happened before, and we want to make sure they do [the work] in a safe manner,” Rivera said.
Rivera said it is possible to complete the pipeline work by the deadline, if sufficient manpower from the utility is made available.
“If not, we’re going to hold their feet to the fire,” Rivera said.
Over the weekend, 6,882 hot plates were given out in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, said Ken Stammen, a Columbia Gas spokesman. Officials have some left over, and residents in the affected areas can call 1-855-218-8816 to request one, he said.
Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said teams of guard members, translators, and electricians plan to go out to distribute the space heaters on Monday.
Space heaters are also to be distributed in Andover starting Monday, said Town Manager Andrew Flanagan.
In North Andover, residents can visit the Columbia Gas claims center at 115 Main St. to schedule a visit by an electrician, who will conduct an inspection and install a heater, Town Manager Andrew Maylor said.
The center is open Tuesday though Friday from noon to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Maylor said.
Moriarty, the Lawrence fire chief, said each team will inspect affected residents’ homes and install smoke detectors and space heaters where they can be used safely. Each resident will also be given instructions on the safe use of the equipment.
“If you use the equipment properly and follow the instructions, you should not have a problem,” Moriarty said.
While the help is appreciated, the appliances aren’t enough to ease the fears of some residents over the coming cold.
Yomeinys Raposo, 32, who received a hot plate Sunday, said it would help her family. Since losing gas service, she has been heating water in her microwave and relying on takeout for hot meals.
But she worries that one space heater will not be enough to combat the cold. And her two children are wary of the gas being turned on again.
“My kids don’t want to sleep alone. They don’t want me to use the oven,” Raposo said in Spanish. “I don’t even want them to see me cooking, because they’ll get scared.”
Neri Rivas, 67, also said one heater won’t be enough for her family.
“We’d have to move it from room to room to warm each person,” Rivas said in Spanish. “It’s a really difficult process for us.”
Rivera said plans are in place for residents whose homes can’t safely use a space heater.
“Everything’s on the table, from hotels to mobile homes, accommodations to deal with that,” Rivera said. “There will be situations that will call for those things, but for the most part, it’s going to be [the homes] can carry the load” of the space heaters.
Lawrence residents who need additional help should call the city’s 211 line for assistance, he said.
“If you have a greater need that is not being met, just raise your hand,” Rivera said.Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.